When my grandfather was a young man, before he decided to follow his father’s lead and grow oranges, he took his wife, Kitty, and his children, Fred and Bess, to the desert to mine for gold. They lived in a tent in a mountainous area near the present Palm Springs until my father was eight years old and my grandmother insisted that it was time for him to attend regular school.
When they moved back to Highland, the minister of the Congregational Church, a Reverend Hartshorn, reminded Kitty that young Fred had never been baptized. He added that it was a serious offense to neglect securing your child’s place in heaven.
The ceremony was set for the next month. On the chosen Sunday, Fred was dressed in brand new clothes, not at all like the ones he had worn as he ran, wild as a jackrabbit, around the mining camp. His Aunt Mattie (Martha Longmire Coy) had crocheted a white lace collar that extended all the way across his shoulders and made his neck itch in back where the hook and eye held the heavily starched collar in place. He had a black silk tie that his mother had arranged in an oversized bow under his chin.
“I don’t feel like me,” Fred said, and he stuck one finger under the lace collar and scratched.
Reverend Hartshorn stood before the altar where the stained glass memorial window sent down its golden rays and lit up his silver hair. He wore a billowing black robe that made him look like the avenging angel in the Bible on Grandma Longmire’s marble-topped table.
“Step forward,” the reverend said, looking straight at Fred. Fred stepped forward. He needed to scratch his neck again, but he didn’t feel that the time was right.
The reverend dipped his fingers into the holy water in the baptismal font. “What is this boy’s name?” he asked Fred’s mother.
“Frederick Lester Cram,” she said firmly. When Kitty Longmire Cram made a point, she had a look about her that made people pay attention. Those names weren’t family hand-me-downs. They came straight from Kitty’s inventiveness. She simply liked the sound of them.
Fred didn’t. His itching had become unbearable. He stuck his finger under the collar and scratched again. What was he doing here anyway, all dressed up like somebody he didn’t even know?
“That’s not my name,” he announced. His voice could be heard all the way to the back row of pews.
The Reverend’s hand stopped mid-air, dripping holy water. Fred’s mother gasped. His father, Frank, tried hard not to smile.
“Well, boy, what is your name,” the Reverend demanded.
“Fred,” he began. Fred, not Frederick. “L . . . “ He hated the name Lester. What could his mother have been thinking of? “ Lawrence,” he said firmly. “Cram,” he added. He supposed a person’s last name always stuck, but he didn’t intend to be saddled with those other two.
Reverend Hartshorn dipped his palm over Fred’s head and holy water dribbled into his eyes and around his ears. He looked the Reverend in the eye and heard the words:
“I baptize you Fred Lawrence Cram.”
It was done. Even his mother couldn’t change it now. He tried not to smile, for it was a serious occasion. But he couldn’t stop his lip from twitching, for he had had a moment of enlightenment. If his mother didn’t have the power to make him carry around a name like Lester for the rest of his life, she sure couldn’t make him wear Aunt Mattie’s crocheted collar ever again.